Deaths On Scripted Television Are “Overwhelmingly Violent” & Don’t Show Full Range Of End-Of-Life Options, USC & End Well Study Finds

A new study released by USC and End Well, a nonprofit organization dedicated to dismantling barriers and confronting stigmas surrounding end-of-life experiences, finds deaths depicted on television are predominantly violent and aren’t showing the full range of choices and experiences available at end of life, further perpetuating the end-of-life care crisis in the U.S.

The study found scripted television skews heavily toward violent death, with over 80% of television deaths caused by violence. It noted research that shows depictions of gun violence on popular primetime dramas doubled from 2000 to 2018, and in an analysis conducted on American primetime network and streaming
shows, over 2015-16, shooting, stabbing, poison, and beating together made up 49% of depicted TV deaths, while illlness was only 4.3%.

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The study was based on original research analyzing transcripts for over 141,000 pieces of scripted content. It was conducted by the USC Norman Lear Center Media Impact Project and made possible through funding in part from The David and Lura Lovell Foundation, the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, the Y.C. Ho/Helen and Michael Chiang Foundation and the George Family Foundation.

Through the study, End Well is hoping to empower television creators to produce diverse, accurate, and representative stories about death and dying that better inform audiences and challenge existing myths, ultimately improving representations of end-of-life care on television.

“In a world where media shapes our perceptions, our recent research unveils a stark reality: the way we see death on screen does not reflect the multitude of choices that exist in real life,” stated End Well Founder Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider. “We hope this study will inspire content creators to embrace their power to create nuanced stories that shape our cultural narrative – and tell the vital, diverse, and compassionate end-of-life journey we all deserve to experience”.

The study found that scripted film and television is 82 times more likely to use the word “killing” and 30 times more likely to use “murder” than all 16 end-of-life care keywords combined. The study says the focus on violent deaths, “reinforces a skewed and sensationalized perspective, perpetuating a narrative that prioritizes drama over authenticity.”

Other key themes found in the study include death as a plot point in another character’s story; a lack of diversity; limited conversations about options; cliched and convenient storylines and passive characters among other things. You can read the complete report here.

“Stories about dying are stories about being human and provide writers with fresh ideas from the profound to the absurd,” said End Well Executive Director Tracy Wheeler. “If people could also learn a bit about what they can do to craft their own end-of-life story, we might begin to create a culture where end of life is truly part of life.”

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